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Nerval, "Octavie (part 1)"

The first part of a short story ("Octavia") by this French writer. You can read the original here.

It was in the spring of 1835 that I was overcome by a lively desire to see Italy. Every day as I rose, I breathed in the bitter scent of the alpine chestnut trees; in the evening, the waterfall of Terni, the effervescent font of the Aniene gushed forth on me alone among the hoarse backstage in a small theater. A delicious murmur like the voice of a siren rustled in my ears, as if the reeds of the Trasimeno themselves had gained sound. I had to quit Paris and leave behind a thwarted love whom I wanted to escape for distraction.

My first stop was Marseilles. Every morning I would bathe in the sea by Châteauvert, and as I swam I could espy elegant isles far off in the gulf. And within this azure bay I would meet daily with an English girl whose slender body split the green waters before me. One day this water girl, who was called Octavia, swam over reveling in the strange catch she had made: in her white hands she held a fish that she gave to me.

I could not but smile at such a gift. Nevertheless, cholera was still sweeping through the city and to avoid the quarantines, I opted for a land route. I saw Nice, Genoa and Florence; I admired both the Dome and the Baptistery, the masterpieces of Michelangelo, and the leaning tower of Pisa. Then, taking the route of Spoleto, I stopped for ten days in Rome. The Dome of Saint Peter, the Vatican, the Colosseum all appeared to be a dream. I rushed to take the post for Civitaveccha, where I would be embarking. For three days the furious sea delayed the arrival of the steamship. On this desolate beach I walked pensively, one day almost getting myself eaten alive by some dogs. On the eve of my departure a French vaudeville was showing in the local theater. A blond and spirited head attracted my attention: it was the English girl who had taken a seat in the forestage box. She was accompanying her father, who looked ill; as a cure doctors had recommended the climate of Naples.

The next morning I gleefully took up my ticket. The English girl was on the bridge which she crossed with long strides, and, impatient with the ship's slowness, she plunged her ivory teeth into a lemon peel. "Poor thing," I told her, "I'm sure you're suffering from angina pectoris and that is certainly not what you need." She fixed her eyes upon me and asked: "Who taught you that?" "The Sibyl of Tivoli," I replied without discomforting myself. "Come off it!" she answered. "I don't believe a word of that."

Saying this she gave me a tender look and I could not prevent myself from kissing her hand. "If I were stronger," she said, "I would teach you how to lie!" And she threatened me, laughing, with a thin golden loaf that she held in her hand.

Our vessel docked at Naples and we crossed the gulf between Ischia and Nisida flooded with the fires of the Orient. "If you love me," she said, "you'll wait for me tomorrow in Portici. It's not every day that I commit myself to such encounters." She disembarked at La Mole square and accompanied her father to the Hotel of Rome, while I took up residence in the Florentin. My day was spent promenading down Toledo and La Mole and visiting the pictures in the museum; in the evening I went to see the San Carlos ballet. There I bumped into the Marquis Gargallo, whom I had known in Paris, and who invited me to accompany him after the show to take tea with him and his sisters. 

I will never forget the sumptuous evening that followed. The Marquise played host to a vast room of strangers and conversation veered towards that of the précieuses, and for a time I believed myself to be in the blue salon of Rambouillet. The Marquise's sisters, as beautiful as the Three Graces, revived in me all the prestige of Ancient Greece. We talked at length about the shape of the Ninnion tablet, whether it was triangular or square. Since she was beautiful and proud like Vesta herself, the Marquise could talk with complete assurance. I left the palace with my head still spinning from this philosophical discussion and could not manage to locate my hotel. By dint of wandering through the city I was finally going to become the hero of some kind of adventure. The encounter I had that night is the subject of the following letter which I later addressed to her from whose love I had thought myself absolved when I quit Paris. 

"I am in a state of extreme inquietude. For four days now I have not seen you, or I have only seen you amidst the swirling rabble. I have something akin to a fatal presentiment. That you were sincere with me, I truly believe; that you have changed in the last few days, I know not but it is this I fear. My God! Have pity on my incertitude or you will bring us into misfortune. Nonetheless, it is I whom I blame. I was meeker and more devoted than a man should be. I surrounded my love with so many reservations; I so feared to offend you, you who had punished me so severely once before that perhaps I went too far in my tact, and perhaps you thought me cold and distant as a result. In any case, I did not spoil an important day for you, I stifled my emotions until it almost cracked open my soul, and my face was covered in a smiling mask, while all this time my heart sighed and burned. Others would not have been so swayed, and yet no one could have shown as much genuine affection nor sensed all that you were worth.

"Let us be frank: I am well aware that there are connections that a woman is loath to break without difficulty, uneasy relationships that can only be severed slowly. Did I ask you for sacrifices that were too great? Tell me your concerns and I shall understand. Your fears, your fantasies, the necessities of your position, none of this can shake the immense affection that I have for you, nor dilute the purity of my love. But together we will see what we can admit and what we must fight, and you can leave it to me to determine whether these are knots that must be cut and not undone. It might be inhuman to be bereft of liberty in such a moment because, as I have said, my life is nothing but your will, and you must know that my greatest wish is to die for you and you alone!

"To die, great God! Why does this idea come to me now and linger as if my death were precisely the equivalent of the happiness that you promise? Death! Somehow that word does not suggest anything somber to my mind. It appears crowned in pale roses just like at the end of a feast. Often I have dreamt that it would be waiting for me at the bedside of the woman I love, after happiness, after intoxication, and it would say to me: 'Young man, you've had your share of joy in this world, now come sleep, come lie down in my arms. I may not be beautiful, but I am good and safe, and it is not happiness that I will bestow upon you but eternal peace.'

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